Less visibly, Stoops undertook a conventional restructuring of the Oklahoma program. One of his first hires was Florida strength and conditioning coach Jerry Schmidt, who had also worked at Nebraska and Notre Dame. When Schmidt arrived in January 1999, many Sooners players couldn't finish his warmups without puking. Now they're passably fit. Recruiting is chugging toward old Oklahoma standards, with 23 high school recruits and five junior college transfers signed as of last weekend. The signing class was ranked 19th in the nation by Super Prep magazine. Memorial Stadium, which seats 79,777, was sold out for the entire home schedule last season for the first time since 1987.
Meanwhile the keepers of the flame watch Stoops work and draw closer. "I'll tell you what," says Washington. "I've got a real good feeling about rebuilding the Oklahoma legacy."
Stoops would know about carrying on traditions. His father, Ron, was a beloved teacher and coach who for 30 years before his death, in 1988, was defensive coordinator at Cardinal Mooney High in Youngstown, Ohio. Ron and his wife, Dee Dee, raised six children—four of them boys—in a small, three-bedroom Cape Cod house on the south side of Youngstown. From the time they could walk, the boys, and many of their friends, followed Ron to his practices and even to the baseball and soft-ball games he played almost until he died. " Mr. Stoops was our hero," says Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini, the former world lightweight boxing champion who grew up with the Stoops boys.
With Ron setting the defenses and coach Don Bucci calling the plays, Cardinal Mooney won four state titles, the last in 1987 All four Stoops boys—Ron Jr., Bob, Mike and Mark—played for their father and worked tirelessly for his approval. "The Mooney program was tough, and my father was tough," says Mike. "He'd kick you in the ass if you weren't doing what you were supposed to do." However, he would never go postal on some pimply kid; instead he would grind his teeth and bite his lower lip into pulp.
He was stricken on the sideline. Just as a ferocious game between Mooney and Boardman ( Ohio) High, where Ron Jr. was an assistant coach, was going into overtime on the night of Oct. 7, 1988, Ron Sr. became so ill that he sat on a bench far from the field. There had been some warning signs: He'd felt nauseated all day and hadn't eaten a slice of birthday cake at a school party that afternoon, even though he loved sweets. "We figured it was just big-game butterflies," says Dee Dee. Ron was only 54, with the wiry body of a teenager, and just that summer had played pickup basketball with his sons at Bob's wedding in Iowa. School officials fetched Ron Jr. from the press box to sit with his father while an ambulance was called. He died en route to the hospital, the victim of heart disease that he never knew he had.
The sons have honored the father's life by walking in his footprints. All four are defensive football coaches. There's Ron Jr., 42, who, following his dad's example, has remained at the high school level, as the defensive coordinator of Boardman's highly respected program. There's Bob, 39, at Oklahoma, whose roots are purely in defense. There's Mike, 37, who worked with Bob at Kansas State from 1992 to '95 and is now his co-defensive coordinator in Norman, their offices next to each other. Mark, 32, was the defensive secondary coach at Wyoming (under former Kansas State assistant Dana Dimel) and might have joined the Sooners, too, except that the brothers agreed that three Stoopses would have stretched the limits of Oklahoma's nepotism policy. In January he moved to the University of Houston as the defensive coordinator.
"Those boys were destined to be football coaches," says former Iowa assistant coach Bill Brashier, who coached Bob, Mike and Mark with the Hawkeyes, "and they were destined probably from the time they could walk, even if they didn't realize it." They didn't, but they do now. "Dad never pushed us to play or to coach, but we loved being around him, doing the things that he did, so why wouldn't we follow him?" says Ron Jr.
The sons' paths were not wholly similar. Ron Jr. didn't play football while attending Youngstown State and never thought seriously about coaching at the college level. He's one of the army of devoted high school soldiers, teaching history—as his father did—to 10th-, 11th-and 12th-graders and coaching not only football but also just about every other sport Boardman offers. Mark might have gone the same way, too. Like Bob and Mike, he started in the secondary at Iowa during the Hayden Fry era and worked as a graduate assistant on Fry's staff after his eligibility ran out. Then, seeking stability, he took a job as athletic director for Nordonia Hills School District in Macedonia, Ohio. That lasted 3� years. "I missed college football, simple as that," says Mark. He went to the University of South Florida as an assistant coach for two years and then to Wyoming, and now Houston.
They all grind their teeth, bite their lower lips, get checked regularly for heart disease and rely on the defense that their dad designed back in the 1960s, a zone-blitzing, run-stopping, corners-on-an-island jailbreak scheme that terrorizes weak offenses and challenges strong ones. Why defense? Maybe it was because the Cardinal Mooney High offense was so bland that it reduced the Stoops boys to grunting, glamourless tight ends, while the defense enabled them to earn All-State honors as flyboy defensive backs. "Offense is cerebral and patient," says Mike. "Defense is emotional and aggressive. That's the way my father was, and that's the way we are. I think that's why we're all drawn to defense."
None of them has taken it as far as Bob, who has his father's dedication and his own ambition. "He was always the most competitive of the Stoops boys," says Bucci. Mike and Mark were better athletes than Bob, but Bob had that fearlessness that stamps overachievers and turns many of them into coaches. "Even when we were kids," says Mancini, "Bobby had no regard for his body. He would throw himself at a ball, even on the pavement."